07/14/2010 01:43 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

John Delloro's Legacy of Labor Leadership

I walked into my summer internship with a vague commitment to social justice and an image of union organizers as overweight white Teamster truckers or the longshoremen thugs who beat up Marlon Brando in On the Waterfront. But when I stepped into the Los Angeles office of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU) as a college junior in June 2001, I met a short young Filipino man wearing a tucked-in purple union t-shirt and baseball hat, glasses with scratched lenses, blue jeans several sizes too large, and a palm pilot holstered onto his belt. John Delloro invited me into his office for what I later learned was known among labor organizers as "the conversation." For me, as for many others, that conversation changed my life.

I had studied inspiring leaders like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., and Cesar Chavez. But their written words alone would not have convinced me to choose activism as a profession. It took a mentor I could see in action, who was willing to answer questions, listen, and share stories. That person was John.

When John suffered a heart attack and passed away last month at 38, he was eulogized for his remarkable accomplishments, following in the footsteps of an older generation of Asian American organizers. John not only possessed the skills of a good organizer; he also understood that the union movement needs to be constantly recruiting young organizers of all backgrounds who can continue the fight for workplace justice. Recently, he was elected president of Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, a national advocacy organization within the AFL-CIO. This made him one of the youngest leaders of color within the American labor movement. Had John lived longer, I'm convinced he would have ended up in the history books alongside other inspirational labor movement leaders. Instead, his legacy is a deeply personal one for a generation of young activists like myself.

John began our first meeting by asking questions. He wanted to know my story. What made me passionate. He understood that he had to make the union movement relevant to my experiences. He then enumerated ways the union could help hospital workers in Los Angeles -- healthcare for their families, political power, wage increases, and a voice in the workplace. "In order to have a true democracy, you have to first have democracy at the workplace," John said. After all, we spend more time in the workplace than we do with our families.

More importantly, John explained to me that empowering healthcare workers also meant uplifting the Filipino community. Filipino workers make up a large share of the hospital workforce in the United States. For many Filipinos, like my mother, who seek to escape poverty in the Philippines, a nursing degree is the easiest path to America. John shared the story of how he helped his own mother, also a nurse, organize a union at her hospital. Though I later came to understand the importance of organizing workers of all colors, the realization that the union movement was tied to my family and community drove my initial work at the internship.

Later that afternoon, John assigned me to organize a meeting in the Filipino community to support workers at a local hospital. He walked me through a training on how to organize an event. He always had stories and sayings to help get the work done ("the sign of a good organizer is the amount of attention he or she pays to detail"). The meeting was a success and throughout that summer, I witnessed workers stand up to their bosses and win improvements. During my senior year, I continued to keep in touch with John. I volunteered on weekends and brought other student activists to the union hall. Many of them went on to become organizers themselves.

When I joined SEIU full-time after college, John looked out for me. He made sure I got to know other organizers of color. Though unions' members are increasingly immigrants and minorities, the leadership of the labor movement is still largely white and male. John believed a staff that reflected the cultural backgrounds of the workers was crucial. He knew that to keep young progressives of color involved, he had to connect us and advocate for our leadership. As I recruited other people my age into the union, I directed them to John for "the conversation."

I often turned to John for advice during my six years with SEIU, including the moments when I felt like quitting. I faced pressures common in many immigrant communities - to pursue another advanced degree right after college. John's stories about how his aunties told him organizing was a "waste of time" gave me comfort as I struggled with my family about my career choices.

Our relationship grew to the point that I started seeking him for life advice. In 2005, I moved to Texas as an organizing director, responsible for running a campaign to organize 13,000 city workers in Houston. The intense hours and difficulties of organizing in an anti-union state like Texas made it difficult for me to focus on my own relationships. I had decided I was not going to propose to my girlfriend until the workers won their contract. "But once this campaign ends, another one will begin," John told me. As important as the movement was, he helped me understand that the people you love cannot revolve around the work. A week or so after talking to John about family and organizing, I bought the engagement ring.

I am only one of many young people inspired by John to devote our lives to empowering workers. There is a generation of organizers who might well have chosen another career path were it not for his mentorship, who might have given up in the face of enormous obstacles, or walked away in despair. Workers are not perfect, John would remind us, but even if they are racist, sexist, homophobic, or anti-immigrant, they need to be organized. "You have to believe that through the process of coming together by organizing a union, people can change," John would say.

John bridged two generations of labor activists. With his help, many of us from the new generation have fashioned a more dynamic vision of the labor movement that goes beyond addressing workplace grievances and negotiating contracts. John challenged us to envision a labor movement that involves community groups, churches, students, lawyers, professors, consumers and immigrant rights groups. He passed on to us his anger at injustice, his hope and his passion, and his belief that we can make a difference. He will be deeply missed.